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Who Gets To Be A ‘Real American’ Has Always Been About Exclusion

When Sen. Mitch McConnell was asked, last month, about the concerns that people of color have about their voting access in the upcoming midterm elections, he responded by saying: “The concern is misplaced because if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”

You could say McConnell’s comment and the way it differentiated between African Americans and Americans was just an inartful phrasing or a slip of the tongue. But it comes as Republicans around the U.S. have proposed and enacted laws that make it harder for people to vote, especially voters of color and young voters. 

In fact, whatever he personally intended, McConnell’s “slip of the tongue” was no slip at all: Throughout U.S. history, white people and institutions have sought to define American identity in a way that excludes people of color, and language has been an important tool in that effort. McConnell’s comment fits neatly into that history. 

There’s a long history of patriotic rhetoric that equates Americanness with whiteness — a tactic that influences the public’s perceptions of American belonging and who gets political or social power, according to research. 

“Whatever we typically think of as patriotic language often puts borders in place about who counts and who doesn’t count,” said Lisa A. Flores, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, and political rhetoric researcher. 

“Some of us are not even real Americans. We’re suspect, right? And our bodies are a problem to the nation.”

Much of this language can seem innocent enough in that it doesn’t mention race or ethnicity outright. Think “real” or “regular” Americans, the “silent majority,” “take our country back” and “make America great again.”

That kind of coded language has a long history in U.S. politics. Take, for instance, “take back our country.” The phrase was one of the last things former President Donald Trump uttered in his speech before the Jan. 6 insurrection. “We’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country,” Trump said.

Variations of that phrase were also a favorite of the tea party, which sprang to life in no small part in reaction to the election of the nation’s first Black president. Former KKK leader David Duke used the phrase while explaining the purpose of 2017’s “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, and in his concession speech after losing the race for Louisiana governor in 1991. 

Pat Buchanan, who ran a race-baiting campaign for president in 1992, ended his address to the Republican National Convention that year by saying, “We must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”

George Wallace, former Alabama governor and presidential candidate, ran on the slogan “Stand Up For America” in the 1960s. The motto couched campaigns marred by racism, pro-segregation sentiments and Wallace’s love of the “the great Anglo-Saxon Southland.” He was elected to the governor’s office four times.

This kind of rhetoric is powerful because it allows racism to play out right in front of people’s faces, according to Jamaal Muwwakkil, a socio-linguist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

It’s left unsaid who exactly the country is being taken back from.

“It passively establishes a hierarchy of Americans on the status of authenticity,” said Muwwakkil. “It is based on the user and the listener to fill in those gaps that aren’t stated explicitly with what they understand to be more authentic characteristics of American.”

Painting nonwhite, urban, non-Christian Americans as “fake,” illegitimate or not-the-standard American implies that these populations are less worthy of political or social representation, the experts I spoke with said. 

“We start to use language and we don’t even recognize we’re doing it. You’ve got good people all over the country who are using [this] language, and not intending to be racist,” Flores said. “And that’s the most important piece, because they may not even know how much [Americans have] bought into white supremacy as individuals and as a nation.”

Language like this has been used to implicitly signal white voters, Flores said.

“One of the ways that our brains sort of makes sense of the world around us is that we’re really good at detecting patterns,” said Efrén O Pérez, a professor of Political Science and Psychology at UCLA. “Anytime you use language in that way, you’re tapping into the various associations that people might have with categories, with certain ideas, with certain values.” 

As Flores and Pérez note, language — political rhetoric in particular — is an effective tool to activate this exclusionary version of American identity. In “White Identity Politics,” Duke University political scientist Ashley E. Jardina argues that white racial grievances have a more powerful effect on political beliefs when white people perceive themselves as under threat. As Michael Tesler, a FiveThirtyEight contributor and professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, wrote, that’s “one reason why Trump was so effective in his many appeals to the cultural, economic and physical threats that they were supposedly facing.”

Indeed, lots of research has found that Trump’s racist and racialized rhetoric in 2016 helped him win support from white voters who had “conservative” views on race, including many who had previously cast a ballot for then-President Barack Obama in 2012.

The rhetoric matters.

And it matters beyond elections. This type of language both flows from and reinforces a belief among some Americans, particularly white Americans, that national identity is defined, in part, by whiteness, research has found. 

For example, a 2005 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “American = White?,” looked at six separate studies on the subject. Overall, it found that African Americans and Asian Americans were viewed as being less American than white Americans (Latinos and Hispanics were not featured in this study). 

That’s despite the fact that both African Americans and white Americans were perceived as having strong ties to American culture. African Americans were seen as more related to a “foreign” label than white Americans, and Asian Americans were not merely viewed as foreigners, but were more likely to be excluded from the “American” label altogether. 

A 2015 study from the same journal found that white Americans reported concerns that the group’s long-standing claim of being “All-American,” and the term’s growing precarity, may create a growing opposition to diversity.

“Gains for minority groups somehow represent a loss for some groups of white people,” said Juliet Hooker, a professor of Political Science at Brown University.

Moreover, political language and law go hand-in-hand, experts said. Where racism flows, discriminatory laws may follow. 

“The law was used as a way of defining who’s American and who’s not along racial lines,” said Kevin Johnson, professor of public interest law at the University of California, Davis. “We should remember that our discriminatory history of immigration laws tells us a little bit about what we are as a nation, and we should pay attention to that.”

This can be seen in the 1790 Naturalization Act, the 1882 Immigration Act, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act or Trump’s 2017 Muslim ban. The law has continuously been used to identify and delegate who can be considered an American or worthy of representation in the U.S. 

And, of course, it’s no coincidence that McConnell’s comment came in a conversation about elections, where who counts as a “true” American is most clearly and literally at stake. Throughout American history, laws have been enacted to deny people of color the vote and representation.

Several policies during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow era limited Black voters’ access to elections using loopholes in the 15th amendment that was supposed to guarantee voting rights for Black men. Poll taxes, literacy tests, felony disenfranchisement laws and intimidation are just some of the many ways that Black voters were shunned from the polls.

Ongoing redistricting efforts and recent voting restrictions have been dubbed the “new Jim Crow” because of their disproportionate impact on voters of color. 

Roughly 20 states have restricted voting access since the 2020 election, following Trump’s false claim of widespread election fraud, the Brennan Center for Justice reports.

Indeed, you can see these perceptions about who’s a “true” American, and the language that surrounds those beliefs, in Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 election.

They have resulted not only in a majority of Republicans believing the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, according to polls, but in a myriad of efforts to find fraud (none of which have succeeded). But look at where those efforts focused: According to Hooker they targeted, “ multiracial cities and cities with large Black populations.”

The idea, Hooker added, is that Trump and his supporters lost because of people who, in their view, shouldn’t get a say at all, and certainly shouldn’t be able to determine the outcome of a U.S. election.

Kiara Alfonseca is a reporter for ABC News covering race and culture.

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